Thoughts on Race in the UK

13Sep08

Race and ethnicity in the UK is something that I really wanted to write a proper blog post on. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, my experience was just too limited for me to say anything really meaningful.

From the perspective of a Los Angelino, one of the most fascinating (and at times jarring) aspects of UK culture is the interplace of race and society. I am not qualified to make broad statements about the UK, but my very limited experience shed some light on how people in the UK “see” and “interpret” race and ethnicity. Such perceptions are inevitably tied up to class and privilege, for example, I’ll never forget an anecdote by former Trinity Master Amartya Sen where the Nobel laureate was stopped at Heathrow because he listed the Trinity Master’s Lodge as his residence on his UK entry form. Passport control looked at him and incredulously asked, “does the Master know that you’ll be staying with him?”

In Durham I would randomly find people complimenting me on how well I spoke English. Newspapers across Europe are full of editorials about how countries ought to `deal’ with poor, minority immigrants. Less-proper English school-children will ridicule one another with racially-charged language that would be well out-of-bounds for even the most knavish of their American counterparts. Minorities in Europe seem more likely to form ethnic enclaves than American minorities. Alternately, minorities in Europe hold on to a stronger sense of heritage even after the first generation of immigrants. I get the impression that American minorities are faced with less an “either-or” decision between mainstream American culture and their ethnic heritage. Mixed-race marriages seem to be a bit less common in the UK; though I have not looked at the census data.

At the same time, British television seems much more comfortable incorporating `real’ (i.e. non-”token”) minorities into its programming. In this sense I have much more confidence in the UK’s youth to make great progress in approaching a society that can simultaneously embrace the richness different cultures while maintaining a national identity that is inclusive of all its members.

At the end of the day I’m not sure how to really piece together my experiences in the UK in terms of a coherent message about race. They were certainly colo(u)red by my own vantage as an ethnic `minority,’ as an American (where race is a much more overtly sensitive issue), and as a student. One’s experience in a Durham college will vary greatly from a local Durham pub, or a Cambridge college, or a London pub, etc. etc. etc. I would love to hear from other American ex-pats on their thoughts on this topic.

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2 Responses to “Thoughts on Race in the UK”

  1. 1 René Meyer

    Just my 2 cents on the point: When reading your article the saying “It does not take much to be an American” came into my mind, and I think this is actually where the difference lies to Europe. In the US, people with a non-west european immigrant background might be easier accepted because of the country’s history as a place to immigrate to, where even the group of white americans is too diverse to make up a homogeneous entity. In the nation states in Europe, things are different, as since the history of nationalism in Europe, every country has its (often not so nice) own idea of what the “mainstream culture” (british, french, german, italian…) is. Newly arriving people, even from just the neighboring country (go from germany to austria for example), have a hard time of behaving similar to the locals, which in turn explains your observation of immigrants sticking longer (even over generations) to their identity – the mainstream culture just asks too much from them, namely becoming british, german, french, italian, whatever. It might thus be correct to say that “It does not take much not to become a british (or pick your favorite european nationality), but its nearly impossible to become one.”

  2. 2 René Meyer

    BTW: I enjoy your blog alot, your posts are really great!



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